Artwork for What Really Happened

Since there is a lack of visual material for most of my family history, I will be making works of art to fill the gap, animating some of them.

Max Robinson

Max Robinson

Arthur Robinson portrait

Rabbi Bernard Robinson

Hardware Store

Prairie Town Train Station

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What Real Happened – An Enquiry into My Family History and Lore

I’ve been working mainly on my art, film and food project The Art and Politics of Eating since 2008. A year or two ago, however, I quite suddenly became interested in delving into my family history, and after about a year of research, produced this ten minute preview of the project.

What Real Happened – An Inquiry into My Family History and Lore from Zev Robinson on Vimeo.

What Real Happened – An Enquiry into My Family History and Lore is a documentary project about my father’s family starting with my widowed great-grandfather emigrating from Ukraine with his son to North America, and ending up an Orthodox Rabbi, property owner and Prohibition-era bootlegger in San Francisco. My grandmother fled a pogrom with her family. My uncle rode the rails in the Great Depression and fought in WW2 after leaving home when he was 16, while my father, too young to fight in WW2, joined the Israeli army in 1948 and fought in the War of Independence.

There are several cousins and historians I’m hoping to interview, and archives to visit. It has a long way to go yet, and I plan to make it a main focus of my work over 2024 and most likely beyond.


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The Art and Politics of Painting

A new documentary project about the history of art, linking painting, the artist and the social context in which it was made. It starts with Vermeer, Rembrandt and the Dutch Golden Age but will broaden to include Italian Renaissance art, French painting in the eighteenth and nineteen centuries, looking at how artists treated composition, colour and the world around them.

How to Paint a Masterpiece – 1. Vermeer Intro from Zev Robinson

How to Paint a Masterpiece: 2. Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring from Zev Robinson

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Vermeer’s Imagination

All my time and energy has gone into my art, film and food project The Art and Politics of Eating over the last few years, so haven’t had time to update this site. However, as I’m not currently working on any food and sustainability related documentary at present – though more are on the horizon – I now have a window of opportunity to start one on Vermeer that I’ve been thinking about for quite a while.

Here’s the introduction, explaining it in a bit more depth. I will be doing a series of shorts that will eventually be worked into an hour long documentary.

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Art and Ego: Rembrandt and Hirst

Rembrandt - Aristotle with a Bust of Homer (detail)Later on, Vermeer would make extraordinary universes out of small rooms in the provincial town of Delft, but Rembrandt needed to leave his native Leiden for Amsterdam in order to drape his sitters in exotic costumes and enjoy the worldly benefits that his extraordinary talent afforded him.

Slowly, from clean, crisp portraits and history paintings, atmosphere crept into his paintings. As he matured, the painterly qualities increased, making the sfumato and chiaroscuro all the more dramatic. Brush mark by brush mark, the tones constantly move from warm to cool and back again, and from lights to darks over charged surfaces where no two square centimetres are the same. Opaque impastos in ochres and flesh pinks are overlaid by greyish-green and umber translucent glazes, one over the other over the other to produce a dazzling weave that few have ever been able to match. Each mark demanded another in response, and Rembrandt always rose to the challenge. Never satisfied, he would work it and work it, and then work it some more.

He began to turn away from the worldly and looked inward. From the start, he had a certain insight, but through the loss of three of his four children and then his wife, bankruptcy, diminished fame and the loss of wealth, and equally through painting, he came to understand impermanence and the nature of God. His figures became enveloped in half-lit mists and shadows, with a beam of light cutting through to illuminate the sitter’s face to define features almost lost in the shadows.

Rembrandt may have met Spinoza who said that God and nature were one and the same, and Rembrandt showed it in his paintings. Not coincidentally, Spinoza was exiled from his Jewish community and Rembrandt would be shunned by art patrons who wanted these things separate and clearly defined.

It has been said that now that we know how certain painters “did” it, anyone can, as if great paintings were a secret formula that could be discovered and repeated. Whereas for Rembrandt, the secret was never to repeat himself. That was to be the undoing of his worldly success; that was to be the making of his genius.

Recently, it has been fashionable to pick on Vermeer, saying that anyone can be like him using a camera obscura, and now we have Damien Hirst piping in with, “Anyone can be like Rembrandt…It’s about looking. It can be learned. That’s the great thing about art. Anybody can do it if you just believe. With practice, you can make great paintings.” (

For Hirst, it is a convenient counter to the criticism he has faced that anyone can put an organism in formaldehyde – anyone can make a Hirst, sure, but anyone can make a Rembrandt too. It takes the unique and extraordinary and makes it common and ordinary. Tearing someone else down in order to raise yourself. Limiting art and the world to your ego. A self-portrait is a selfie. A cow in formaldehyde is a masterpiece.

Likewise, what separates Shakespeare, Joyce, Billie Holiday, and Maria Callas from the rest of us is little more than a question of hours of practice. “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practise, practice.” Anyone can do it.

Many highly talented Dutch artists came out of Rembrandt’s studio trained by the Master himself, they practiced, practiced, practiced, yet none could match him. Of all the hundreds of seventeenth century Dutch painters, only Vermeer, speculated to be the student of Rembrandt’s student Fabritius, could rise to his heights.

When Dutch wealth became entrenched and demanded art that was idealised and refined, Rembrandt stayed the course. He had the talent to paint in a way that would have solved his financial burdens and restored his battered reputation, but he stayed the course. It was his vision, it was his being, his essence, and he would stay the course. In that, he was as radical a painter as ever has been, and in the complexity of his work, as brilliant a painter as ever has been. Anyone can see that.

Look: that, too, is what makes a Rembrandt. Never satisfied, he worked it and worked it, and then worked it some more. Perseverance and toil, dedication, rigour, facing oneself, developing one’s art and vision in a world that will judge it harshly and unfairly and then say, “anyone can do it”.

Long before Rembrandt and Spinoza, Buddha also understood that God and nature were one and the same, and revealed the simple secrets of living. All it takes is practice, practice, practice. Sit still and slowly breathe in and out. Let go of your ego and see the world, God and nature as they are. Now anyone can do it.

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Unstuck in Time

He sits there lifesize or perhaps larger-than-life, still frozen almost 50 years later, with the vacant stare of a witness struck dumb and nothing at all like the numerous small reproductions seen so often in books and magazines. Don McCullin shot five single frames, each identical, of the US Marine in Vietnam. He didn’t blink and he didn’t move. He became, like Kurt Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five, “unstuck in time.”

“Kurt Vonnegut was present during the firebombing of Dresden in February 1945,” says the text on the wall, “when tens of thousands of its inhabitants were killed. He was locked in the underground meat locker of a slaughterhouse as a prisoner of war, and emerged the morning after the air raid to find what he called ‘possibly the world’s most beautiful city’ completely destroyed. Twenty-four years later he finally published Slaughterhouse-Five, where he wrote: ‘People aren’t supposed to look back.’ ”

Outside, the same boat that took Churchill’s body to his funeral half a century earlier moved slowly up the Thames past the Tate as part of a day of commemorations that looked back at the Prime Minister who led the nation in its darkest hour and who was also directly or indirectly responsible for the Dresden area bombings which targeted the whole city, not just military and industrial targets. He had his role in the creation of Slaughterhouse-Five which in turn was curator Simon Baker’s inspiration for the “Conflict, Time, Photography” exhibition at the Tate Modern, and now the boat moves slowly by outside.

Inside the Tate are photographs by Nick Waplington of wall drawings done by German prisoners of war at the Island Farm camp in South Wales. Some of the prisoners, perhaps those who did those drawings, were generals and high-ranking SS officers who were to be tried at Nuremberg and at least two of whom were executed. Old age and disease must have taken the rest by now and most of the camp itself was destroyed the year after Waplington’s visit in 1993.

Outside the Tate, three days before the Churchill commemoration, the BBC covered the services of survivors revisiting Auschwitz on the seventieth anniversary of its liberation. We must look back, we must never forget.

For many Holocaust survivors, the prisoners at the Island Fire camp were monsters, yet the drawings they left behind suggest simple human sensibilities and desires. For some, that may be more unpleasant and difficult to see than any photograph of the dead. One or two of the prisoners may have become artists themselves under different circumstances, perhaps even with an original painting in the Tate. But circumstances were not different.

Steven Shore visited Holocaust survivors in the Ukraine and his photographs, too, are oddly unstuck in time. A man, presumably a survivor, is smiling, his jacket displaying an array of medals. A woman, perhaps his wife or another survivor, is also smiling. The rest are photos of interiors and objects, many of the retro-cool Soviet-era kind and, like the smiles, seemingly at odds with the gravity of the subject matter. Had the survivor finally found that, in Vonnegut’s words, “Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt”? Was there no trace of the Holocaust left, did he no longer look back? Were those medals for his part in fighting with the Resistance or the Soviet Army, his own purging, his own Slaughterhouse-Five? The display is a strange, disjunct, and uneasy narrative, as any act of looking back must be.

The sites of conflicts are revisited by the photographer minutes, years or decades later, and the exhibition is laid out chronologically according to time elapsed, but for us it is years and decades after the fact. One minute we are viewing the latest in shells and bombs, and shells of buildings in Iraq and Afghanistan, the next, Roger Fenton’s cannonball-strewn road in the 19th century Crimean War, then more shells of buildings in France, Vietnam, Japan, Germany, Africa, the Americas, as the exhibition itself becomes unstuck in time. Each landscape leads the viewer into the next in one long destructive rampage in time and space with only a change of armaments and fortifications, and each says, “There was some killing done here.”

It is everywhere and always, captured in any and every photograph. An Ansel Adams landscape revisits the death of millions of native North Americans, the ghosts of dead slaves populate William Eggleston’s suburbs of the South, and a postcard of the Tower of London is the scene of torture, beheadings and heads displayed on pikes. A photograph can hide so much.

Time only stops with the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as if all the explosions from all the other wars fused together as one in order to destroy existence itself, condensing time the way a black hole compresses matter. The watch stopped at that very moment in Shomei Tomatsu’s “11:02 Nagasaki” series where there are the city has “two times. There was 11.02, August 9, 1945. And there is all the time since then. We must not forget either of them.”

Tomatsu’s “11:02 Nagasaki” also includes the faces of survivors with keloid scarring, a once pretty young woman whose looks were burned off her face, about to be married or perhaps waiting for her husband soldier to come home safe and sound, those who had to look at her scarred face and those who would look away, and those who suffered and suffer still the deforming effects of radiation. How much of this can a mere photograph reveal.

Ninety-nine years after the start of World War 1, Chloe Dewes Mathews returned to photograph landscapes, as tranquil and conflicted as any landscape, showing the exact places where British, French and Belgian soldiers on the Western Front were executed for cowardice and desertion. Many of those soldiers were just a previous incarnation of McCullin’s eternally frozen, shell-shocked soldier. Mathews’ photographs are like a single flower at their graves, a small reminder of the ultimate injustice they endured after going to war in the service of others, then for suffering its effects in the service of others. “This is the thanks I get,” they thought, standing before the firing squad. Churchill, whose boat continued upstream a century later, was an officer on the Western Front.

Eighty-four years later McCullin photographed the Somme Battlefield of World War I, the scene of endless massacres and shell-shocked soldiers and executions, and the wall text says that it, “shows a landscape that still seems haunted by the carnage of battle…that emphasises the sense of absence and loss.” All of McCullin’s photographs, of peaceful landscapes, of death and destruction, of everyday English life, are haunted, by history and by ghosts. It is his ability to evoke ghosts that makes him so extraordinary; some photographs can reveal so much.

Today, McCullin focuses on the English landscape trying to purge his own past, but says that the sound of a hunter’s shotgun blast in the distance brings it all back, that a reminder of what he used to do is always present. In a world where we must remember, Don McCullin saw too much of what no one should have to see, and now photographs the solace of Somerset in a desperate attempt to forget.

Hrair Sarkissian photographed archives in Istanbul libraries that may or may not contain information about the genocide of the Armenian population in the Ottoman Empire which caused his family to flee to Syria. “Conflict, Time, Photography” itself is not unlike those libraries that may or may not hold vital clues to our existence should we open them. But once the exhibition is finished, the photographs will return to the shelves and dark vaults, witnesses unstuck in time, and lie there, waiting.

“Conflict, Time, Photography” continues at the Tate Modern, London, until March 15.

The documentary “McCullin” is available on DVD.

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The Art and Politics of Eating – Proposal for an Exhibition on and with Food

The Art and Politics of Eating – Proposal for an Exhibition on and with Food

Since 2008, I’ve been directing a series of documentaries on the relationship between food, wine, agriculture and sustainability in Spain which have screened internationally, followed by wine tastings and talks about the complex matter of food production.

The films are now to be combined with photographs by Albertina Torres and my  paintings on similar themes, along with wine and food tastings in a scalable art project called The Art and Politics of Eating, bringing a greater focus on the questions of sustainability of our food and ecosystems while looking at the nature of art and art forms and their relationship to our lives.

In collaboration with local chefs, caterers and Spanish restaurants, tapas and sit down meals would consumed surrounded by art, photography and video installations that gives the experience a cultural and geographical context – the faces, hands, toil and plants and animals that enable us to eat. Traditionally, it has always been that way when people produced their own food, and only in modern urban life have the two – food and agriculture – been separated. The Art and Politics of Eating is an experience in bringing the two back together. It may be somewhat disconcerting to some, but it is a thought provoking experience and glimpse into a reality to which urban living makes us oblivious. It also examines the relationship between painting, photography, video and food as media, as culture and as art forms.

Please download the proposal for a more complete description – The Art and Politics of Eating Proposal

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Arribes: This Is Also The Future


(This is the English translation of El futuro también es esto by Estefanía Vasconcellos in the Spanish national newspaper El Mundo.)

How exotic to see a pig being cut open with its intestines still hot and steamy. The smell cannot penetrate the screen, but anyone who has witnessed a pig slaughter knows how thick and warm it is, blending in with the stench of scorched skin. How awful to see a knife stuck in the pig’s throat, bleeding into a bucket to be used for blood sausages, and then its innards being pulled out.

But it need not be looked at in that way. Unless you are a vegetarian, you eat meat, although perhaps unaware of what happens to an animal from the moment they are born until you see them as sliced meat in the supermarket. One day they are grazing in the pasture and the next day, zap! A Canadian portrays people still in control of the production of their own food from start to finish in villages in northwest Spain. Pigs and chickens do not die by themselves. “Sometimes it repels me, but I kill it anyway”, says a women with rosy cheeks. Continue reading

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Arribes: el resto es barullo

Arribes: Everything Else is Noise / Arribes: el resto es barullo from Zev Robinson on Vimeo.

(English version here –

Siempre he vivido en grandes ciudades, donde compraba en tiendas o supermercados la comida o cualquier otro producto. Aparte de si era ecológica o no, si llevaba demasiados aditivos, sal o azúcar, nunca le presté demasiada atención, como la mayoría de los urbanitas, ajenos a la experiencia de cómo y de dónde proviene la comida. En España, el padre de mi mujer todavía trabaja sus viñedos a pesar de una artritis producida por muchos años de duro esfuerzo en el campo, un campo ingrato donde el granizo o una helada temprana pueden hacer peligrar la cosecha a punto de recoger. Recuerdo comprar una botella de vino en Londres y pararme a pensar que nadie sabía qué hay detrás de esa botella y lo que cuesta elaborar ese vino.

Después de instalarme a vivir en un pequeño municipio en la España rural hace siete años, mi experiencia seguía siendo prácticamente la misma: compraba mi comida en el mercado, en la tienda o en el supermercado. Mi suegro nos da verduras frescas de su huerta, le echo una mano durante la recolección de uvas, pero no me siento más involucrado en la producción de la comida. En el pueblo, la gente, sobre todo los más mayores, todavía tienen sus parcelas de huerta, algunos tienen gallinas, el pastor mata algún cordero para su consumo, pero la gran mayoría tiene que comprar su comida. Los jóvenes se han ido a la ciudad, en busca de una vida más cómoda y trabajos mejor remunerados y más respetados. Más respetados por un sentido invertido de los valores de la sociedad urbana, separada de la importancia vital que supone la comida y la agricultura sin los cuales no podríamos sobrevivir, y menos aún llevar una vida sana. Continue reading

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Arribes: Everything else is noise

Just a quick update on my upcoming Arribes documentary. I’m working hard on editing it and the plan is for it to be ready for for a screening in London in November, and maybe even in NYC at the end of October. It will focus on the relationship between agriculture, food, sustainability and traditions in the isolated region in NW Spain. People produce 50-99% of their own food, but it isn’t an easy, idyllic life either, and I want to show the issues in all their complexity.

Here are some stills from the annual killing of one or more pigs that families do in December. Virtually everything is used, producing sausages and jamon, and it feeds people throughout the year. An older trailer using material from the first two trips to Arribes, before I decided on the film’s focus and returned four more times, can be seen below. A new trailer should be out by early September.


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